Why I Love Shared Cinematic Universes and How They Can Thrive

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)

What a week for gigantic franchise potential. Valiant Entertainment announced that the world of their comics will be coming to life across a number of films and television shows, Sony is seemingly hoping to turn Ghostbusters into an annual franchise, Warner Bros. released the first image from their Knights of the Round Table film, and we finally have a title for the first standalone “Star Wars” movie. We can, of course, attribute this to the folks at Marvel Studios, whose work is now the gold standard as far as the other studios are concerned, and I couldn’t be happier. I love that these behemoth-like franchises are a thing, or at least are trying to be. Though not everyone is so jazzed about the prospect.

Before I get into why I love the idea of these cinematic universes, we need to fully establish what the criteria of a shared cinematic universe is. The MCU is the blueprint. Multiple films that on their own can stand as a singular franchise but are all connected and (sometimes) meet in the middle. That’s a shared cinematic universe. What isn’t a cinematic universe? “Planet of the Apes,” “Halloween,” or James Bond – those are singular franchises. Up until recently, I would have said that “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” weren’t cinematic universes, but with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Star Wars standalone movie Rogue One coming up, it seems that we can call them that very soon.

Do we want to start counting spin-offs as qualifiers for a shared universe though? If not, “X-Men” isn’t a shared universe, and if so, then Grindhouse is as it has had three spin-off movies, in addition to it’s ties to the larger “Tarantino-verse.” For the sake of argument, I think if your franchise has multiple films (including spin-offs) which are all interconnected then you have a shared cinematic universe. This of course now means that “The Mummy” with three main movies, an animated series, and four spin-offs is a cinematic universe as well as “Air Bud,” which had four sequels and nine spin-offs.

Now why do I love them, or at least the idea of them? Shared cinematic universes present a type of storytelling that is the polar opposite of what films have been for decades. For years you saw the movie, you left, if it was successful maybe another would get made in two to five years and then you saw it again. Serials were present in early days of movies, but the business of movie exhibition has changed so much that they’re a relic, what we have now is serialization taken to an entirely new level. Much like we wait week in and week out for new episodes of our favorite TV show or a new comic book, now we wait between four and eight months for a new movie chapter. Which can be excruciating certainly, but when the likes of Marvel’s phase one completes it’s a seriously impressive feat. Beyond that, it’s a reflection of the time. The entire world is totally connected at all times thanks to the internet and cell phones. Not only does it make sense for our entertainment to reflect this, but it’s what the population clearly wants (for now).

Some people are not as high on the idea as I am though. To some, the idea of multiple films all tied together can be seen as daunting. There’s a misconception that if you don’t see one film, you’ll be lost in the next despite them being designed to be singular entities among the web of multiple franchises. Another complaint, which has nothing to do with the content of the films, is that some folks think that the ideas for some shared universes aren’t well thought out, which seems like a cop out answer. I’ll admit the idea of a Robin Hood shared universe and a King Arthur shared universe seems perplexing, though not entirely ridiculous. One of these hopeful franchises hasn’t even begun production and the other is only on its first movie, so of course it doesn’t appear from the outside perspective that they’re “well thought out.” The movies are a mystery to us, and people are afraid of what they don’t know.

How do filmmakers make sure all of these shared universes don’t cannibalize each other and totally destroy the bubble of blockbuster entertainment? To start, they can’t be repetitive. The films must adapt as they go along, meaning they need not be so strict to the guidelines of the foundation. Marvel figured this out with phase two, whose films are all in different genres not only from each other but their predecessors. Their movies are successful not because they stick to the patterns of superhero movies but because their characters live, breath, and evolve. Furthermore, take it slow. Focus on whichever film you’re currently working on and don’t overload it with the prospect of the future films. Finally, get someone to handle it all. Every ship needs a captain and for these colossal bets to pay off, you’re going to need one, someone passionate about the material preferably.

Shared cinematic universes are easier said than done. It’s one thing to say “Like The Avengers but with (Insert character)” and to actually create a functioning on screen continuity of characters, stories, and places over the course of multiple films, and make sure they’re good. Marvel Studios has spoiled us, clearly. They didn’t figure out that the game of blockbusters was changing, they made it change, and for better or worse, everyone wants in on the game. Marvel, DC, Valiant, Universal Monsters, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Star Wars, Harry Potter, take your pick, there’s one for everyone, and I want them all, but please, break the mold.